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Friday, May 18, 2007

IZU PENINSULA

In thrall to a craggy coast


Special to The Japan Times

Hopping on the train at Tokyo Station after the morning rush hour still gets you to south Izu for lunch. So, with a promise of stunning views of the sea and more fresh fish sashimi than you could throw a wasabi tube at, we relaxed on the Super View "Odoriko" train to Izukyu Shimoda Station — later than planned but not unduly concerned. Stepping off the train to feel the city dust swept away by the breezy scenery of the Pacific Ocean, we picked up our rented car and drove to the southernmost tip of Izu Peninsula, Irozaki.

News photo
The southernmost tip of Izu is Irozaki (above). Views of the rocky coastline can also be seen from this suspended bridge near Dogashima, on Izu's western coast (below). Fresh sashimi, meanwhile, can be sampled anywhere across the peninsula. MARIKO KATO PHOTOS
News photo
News photo

The craggy cape is known for its beautiful stretch of sea, scattered with huge, dramatic rocks, among which tourist ferries weave. As we found out, these are less ferries than barges.

The waves that rushed in from the Pacific and bounced off the rocks seemed to thrill those clutching onto the rails of the boat, but we couldn't help but fear that the overexcited child passengers may actually fly overboard. The kids were clutching paper bags full of sweet potato, apparently bought before boarding, the reason for which became clear when the boat neared a mammoth rock in the middle of the sea, shuddered to a near halt, and the youngsters started yelling and throwing their sweet potato chunks at it. From the deep crevices in the rock appeared a pack of monkeys, who gobbled up the grub with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, at either ends of this large rock stood fishermen, having been dropped off by a boat to fish for the day, oblivious to the undignified screeching of both man and monkey.

For more intimate contact with simian beasts, Hagachizaki Monkey Paradise (500 yen for adults, 250 yen for children) is a 20-minute drive along the west coast from Irozaki.

About 300 monkeys roam at the bottom of a steep gravelly hill near the coastline, and visitors can walk among them, crouch beside them and feed them while being repeatedly advised by the park's staffers to put away any loose items such as glasses or hats.

Such safety precautions seemed unnecessary during our visit, though, as the monkeys mostly sat in silent bemusement while the excited humans hopped around them trying to take photographs, screaming if their subjects made sudden movements. After a while, it became less obvious which species is supposed to be the more clever. You wondered what the monkeys might be whispering to each other and quietly shaking their heads about.

With that gentle reproach in mind, we drove along the mountainous west coast to our guesthouse for the night, a minshuku called Izu-ichi.

This minshuku may not have locks on its room doors, but what it did promise (on its Web site) was Izu's freshest fish dishes. This promise was not only kept but surpassed — a plate so large that it couldn't fit between us on our low-lying table in the tatami dining room, with sashimi portions that might serve six in an average Tokyo restaurant.

The manager of the minshuku serves you directly from the kitchen, enthusiastically pointing out the deliciousness of the cherry sea bream, spiny lobster and turban shell. They certainly are softer and juicier than most served in Kanto, and they are complemented by a parade of other fish dishes — baked, fried, grilled and boiled. For an extra price, you can order crab or ear shell in equally generous portions.

News photo
Visitors to Hagachizaki Monkey Paradise greet some of the 300 simian creatures that inhabit the park.

The other attraction of this guesthouse is its genuine countryside feel. You cannot find a convenience store within walking distance, and once you've polished off dinner, the rest of the evening can be spent wandering to the nearby dock for a truly breathtaking view of the sunset.

The next day, out in the fresh morning air at 8:30 a.m. (enforced by an early breakfast), we drove to Lovers' Cape in Toi town. A rather strenuous walk up 750 meters of steep hills through forest is rewarded with free access to panoramic views of Izu's Suruga Bay and, in the distance on the other side of the Pacific, Mount Fuji.

At the top is the stylish Love Call Bell which, if rung three times while calling out your lover's name, guarantees you marriage within two years. The large numbers of young couples at this spot suggest they might believe in this superstition, even if the guys look on rather bemused as their partners grin and bear the uneven hilly paths in high-heeled sandals. Wedding ceremonies also take place on the spot, for which it can only be assumed that the bride braves the hike in a veil and wedding dress.

A gentler walk in the mountains can be had at the Orchid Resort (1,300 yen for adults, children free) in Dogashima on Izu's west coast. Greenhouses scattered along the walk display both popular and unusual orchids throughout the year, and a wander to various clearings takes you to different lookouts, the highlight of which is the dramatic sight of the rocky sea coast from a long suspended bridge.

By late afternoon, we were well-exercised and in dire need of a long bath. Back on the east side of Izu, a 10-minute drive up the coast past Shimoda Station in the direction of Tokyo takes you to Shimoda Prince Hotel, where the modest cost of staying at a minshuku can be compensated with the indulgence of a hot-spring experience at a luxurious hotel, complete with a panoramic 180-degree view of the beach and ocean. At that time of the day, there were no other bathers, and a good hour was spent daydreaming in the tub.

By the time we were back on the Super View "Odoriko" train with cans of cold beer, we had been so spoiled for beautiful views and delicious food for two days that we mostly dozed our way back to Tokyo, as the Pacific Ocean glistened at us from the train window.

Further information on Izu Peninsula: South Izu: tel. (0558) 62-0141; www.minami-izu.net Izu-ichi minshuku: tel. (0558) 56-0563; www.izu.co.jp/ ~izuichi Shimoda Prince Hotel: tel. (0558) 22-2111;www.princehotels.co.jp/shimoda/ The Nippon Rent-a-Car office is next to Shimoda Station; tel. (0800) 500-0919; www.nipponrentacar.co.jp/


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